More About Why The Step-Parent Category Matters to Me

I wrote a couple of days back about categories and particularly about the “step-parent” category.   It’s best of you go back and read those posts, I think, before moving on as I won’t repeat everything but will build on it.

To be clear, the definition of “step-parent” I offered is actually the one I use in everyday life.  It’s not an academic construct–if I hear someone identified as a step-parent, this is what it means to me.   I realize now that the world is probably rife with misunderstandings as it is clear that not everyone shares my definition–and thus the person identifying herself/himself as a step-parent might mean something different from what I think they mean.   That’s a problem.  But for the moment, I’m just going to go along with my definition.  (I have no idea what the most prevalent definition is.)

All of this turns out to be important when I try to formulate an over-arching theory of how people get to be legal parents.   I favor a de facto test–the idea here is that a court would look at real-world facts–who is functioning as a parent to the child (and I mean functioning in a psychological as well as a social sense) and then a court would recognize (and thereby protect) those relationships.   This, it seems to me, serves the interests of children because it protects the existing relationships on which they depend.

Now some people may think it a bit of a stretch, but I think this theory supports a conclusion that a woman who gives birth is, from the time of birth, a legal parent.  Basically I think the process of having been pregnant–of sustaining the development of the fetus till the time of birth–is akin to the relationship I’d count as de facto parentage.   I understand there might be some controversy here, but I’m prepared to stand on this ground–there is something unique and nurturing in that relationship.

The problem is finding a second legal parent.   Now if the second parent is a step-parent–and remember, by this I mean someone who comes along after the original parent/child relationship is up and running–then I think I can use the de facto test for that person.  There are problems–suppose they arrive two weeks after the child is born–how long before they count as a second parent.   But even though I cannot solve all those problems off the top of my head, I can at least see that they might have solutions.  The time depends on the age of the child and the nature of the relationship with the child, I think.

But what about the co-family planner?  Someone like Sporn from this earlier post.   (To be clear, the actual Sporn case isn’t that hard for me because he had been around virtually the entire life of the child.)  Remember Sporn is not, from my point of view, a step-parent.   Is there anyway he can claim parental status that is 1) consistent with the ideal of de facto parentage and 2) quicker.   Someone posed a hypothetical–suppose Leutner had died in childbirth–would Sporn be a legal parent.  He couldn’t claim de facto parentage in the direct way at that point–because he has no developed relationship at the time the child is born.  And yet I find I want to give him some status more significant than that of Leutner’s sister who (let’s assume) hasn’t been part of the picture up until then.

This is a challenge for me.   To restate it briefly–de facto will serve (from my point of view) for step-parents, but it doesn’t seem adequate for the people like Sporn who are, in my view, not step-parents.

I’m inclined to give people in this category something of a leg up–perhaps not full parental rights and particularly not full parental rights vis-a-vis the woman who gives birth, but some recognition greater than that accorded other people.   I think there’s a rationale akin to de facto to support this in part–the person who is a partner through the pregnancy does have some sort of caring relationship with regard to the just-born-child.   But I do worry about this.

Now I must run–but I wanted to at least get a start on hashing this out.

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5 responses to “More About Why The Step-Parent Category Matters to Me

  1. Parents are the end of the line as far as authority goes, lest they break the law. Their authority is so far down the line that they simply are parents and then the law simply records the fact. The law does not grant parenthood though it does grant adoptive parenthood. The law recognizes step parenthood which is essentially granted by the parent who got married to the person thereby allowing them to become step parents to their children and the law has no authority over that – again providing that the marriage is legal and consensual.

    Point is real parents don’t need permission from anyone to be legal parents, they just are because they have a permanent relationship with the child that is not dependent upon any personal allignment with the child’s other parent. In fact they don’t need to be loving or supportive during the pregnancy to be legal parents of the resulting child because they are related to the child directly, not circuitously via their partnership with the other parent who is granting them the right to be around their child.

  2. why do you think that the intent to parent, prior to the birth, is important in according parental status?

    If we agree that performance is more important than intent, why should we accord intent any status, especially if the plans break down early on.

    I oppose intent not because I think the person who had the intent is necessarily a bad person, but because overall it can’t be good to open the door to contractualization and commodification.

  3. The problem with your theory is that your theoretical parents are not equals in their level of obligation, accountability and authority. One of them would have absolutely no obligation to the child absent the invitation of the other. It does not matter how quickly the second catches up to the first – one is there with the permission of the other and that matters if you are going to preserve the authority of the mother call the shots on who else can and can’t be around her child. A parent would not need the mother’s permission or the state’s permission to have an equal obligation to that child, but a step parent does and so does an adoptive parent. Step parents are legally obligated to help support their step children but only for so long as the marriage lasts and the same cannot be said of a child’s actual parent.

    What happens with an incorrect marital presumption of paternity, is that people loose one of their parents and gain a permanent legal attachment to someone who should only have been functioning as a step parent. They could have had just as close a personal relationship with the step parent without loosing their parent, the title defines the origin of the obligation not the level of love the two share.

  4. I suppose you don’t really care that they are not equal in their level of authority if they function like they are as time passes. In your eyes it works for millions of women who are in straight relationships. But those women have lied they’ve done something that is unforgivable really

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